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January 30, 2013
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Summit County: Put a thinking cap on that sheep's brain

A paper plate adorned each of the tables of Diane Smith's eight-grade classroom. In the center of each plate was a small gray object, which the students stared at with a mixture of fascination, curiosity and disgust. It wasn't a model, but an actual preserved sheep brain. And at the front of the class, instead of their usual teacher, the students had no fewer than three experts in the field of neuroscience to give them information and answer their questions.

"These sheep donated their lives for science," said Joe Cichon, an M.D. and Ph.D. student at New York University. He continued to describe each section of the brain and how it functions, alternating between projector slides and the brain in front of him.

Cichon and his colleagues - Gong Chen, associate professor of neuroscience at Penn State University, and Tom Kuhn, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks - were just a handful of the more than 500 neuroscientists from around the world attending the 46th annual Winter Conference on Brain Research in Breckenridge this week.

As part of a school outreach program, conference attendees partnered with local schools, providing students the opportunity to hear presentations from experts in the forefront of their field. They have been visiting county schools throughout the week, from elementary to middle and high school, covering topics such as brain functions, the nervous system, Alzheimer's disease, exercise and nutrition and memory.

"Summit School District is honored for this golden opportunity," stated Bethany Massey, director of assessment and technology.

Not only were the students able to watch the presentations, but most had interactive elements as well.

Joan Becker retired from teaching sixth-grade science last year, but happened to be substituting for the eighth-grade class when Cichon, Chen and Kuhn came to present. She was just as excited as the students, if not more so, for the opportunity.

"It really is a good day to be here," she said. "I think the kids are phenomenally lucky to have the additional brain power brought to them by the conference."

After learning about the functions of each of the sections of the brain, the eighth-graders had another task. Donning gloves, they delved deeper into the study of the sheep brain, slicing it right down the middle.

While a few students covered their eyes or put their heads down on the table, the majority crowded in closer, poking at the brain and asking questions.

"I thought that it would look more like a cartoon," one girl said.

"It's just really great for the kids to have this different perspective," said Julie Scott, who teaches seventh grade. "It's exciting to see the kids getting excited."

Brenda Thompson-Lessler, also a seventh-grade teacher, said that having the experts there in person really made a big impression on the students.

"I think knowing that these are real scientists that are really researching, I think that's a whole cool new element," she said.

She noticed much more engagement than if she had merely given them a textbook on the subject. "Kids were talking."

The students and teachers weren't the only ones having a good time, either. The scientists seemed eager to answer questions and point out interesting facts throughout their presentations.

"I think it was great. I don't think I ever told anyone about the brain that didn't show interest," Kuhn said, and added, "I'm just floored by how attentive and polite all the kids are."

The perspective of everyone involved can be summed up by eighth-grader Keelie Rix's enthusiastic comment to her classmates during the sheep brain dissection.

"This is awesome!"


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The Summit Daily Updated Jan 30, 2013 10:35PM Published Jan 30, 2013 10:33PM Copyright 2013 The Summit Daily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.